A Terrorist Comes of Age in El Akkad’s Poignant–and Chilling–American War

Omar El Akkad

Set 50-plus years in the future, Omar El Akkad‘s debut novel American War (Knopf, 2017) has been widely praised, becoming one of those rare books with science fiction themes to make numerous mainstream publications’ Best Books of the Year lists. It was, for example, among the 100 Most Notable Books in The New York Times, the Best Books of 2017 in GQ, and was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s top pick for Canadian fiction.

I was thrilled that El Akkad accepted my invitation to appear on New Books in Science Fiction. (Listen to the interview). It’s a wonderful book–lyrical, imaginative, and, as a terrorist’s coming-of-age story, acutely relevant to today.

El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt, grew up in Qatar, eventually moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. He has worked as a journalist, covering everything from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement. He also spent two years covering the terrorism trials of the Toronto 18, which gave him insight into how young minds are radicalized and provided partial inspiration for his depiction of American War’s protagonist, Sarat Chestnut.

We meet Sarat when she’s an appealing, headstrong six-year-old and follow her, via El Akkad’s nuanced writing, as she grows up in a refugee camp, sees her family destroyed, and is groomed to commit acts of terror. Ultimately, she plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the Second American Civil War, and yet, in a reflection of the true-to-life nature of El Akkad’s storytelling, her motives aren’t the black-and-white of Hollywood, but remain murky.

Despite the book’s title, El Akkad told me that he doesn’t feel he’s writing about America. “To me if was never a book about America but about the universality of revenge… That any of us subjected to the injustice of being on the losing end of war, being on the losing end of violence, break down the same way and become damaged the same way and become wrathful the same way. The book is set in an allegorical America.”

Podcast No. 12: ‘You’re only as good as your last book,’ says Kameron Hurley, author of The Mirror Empire

Here are some highlights from my conversation with Kameron Hurley, author of The Mirror Empire, on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Although her first book was a success (winning the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel), the other two books in the series, Infidel and Rapture, were hurt by the financial troubles of the publisher. Hurley rallied, finding a new agent and a new publisher, but the path wasn’t easy. As she says, “You’re only as good as your last book. If your last book doesn’t sell, then you’re not going to sell other work. … This is an up and down business. It’s not a straight trajectory. You have to work very hard, and I think that’s very motivating for me to know I have to work very hard just to stay in the game.”

While writing is a solitary affair, Hurley has surrounded herself with a circle of supporters—and advises everyone to do the same. “If you’re going to have a goal in life… You want to be a CEO, you want to open your own business, you want to be a writer [then] you need to surround yourself with people who support what you are doing. And that’s everyone. If your family doesn’t support what you do then maybe don’t see them as much. I hate to say it. And if you have a partner who doesn’t support what you do, then maybe you should look at a different partner. If the agent that you have is not working out and your styles just do not work and you’re not getting what you need from that relationship then you need to find an agent that works.”

Check out Hurley’s essay “We Have Always Fought”—about the history of women in conflict—which was the first blog post ever to win a Hugo Award.